The 10 Greatest Film Scores of All Time

A short while ago, I wrote a column entitled “The six most painful scores of all time.”

I took some heat, which is fair enough, but there were a few who seemed to think I had no knowledge of the subject. In my own defense, I have studied composition, orchestration and film scoring in my day, so I would simply argue that those who differ with me simply have tastes dissimilar from mine. The other reason I have stated the above is to warn the reader that the following column may use musical jargon with which they may not be familiar, but I will do my best to make it accessible to everyone.

Another note; my views are colored by a salient fact about film scoring; it is not at all uncommon for film scores to sound derivative, and I value those that are as little derivative as possible. There is good reason for the imitative sound often found in film scores; more often than not film editors cut the film while using music they have borrowed from some extant material, (called the scratch track) whether it be classical, pop, rock, or jazz, and quite often the powers that be (whether producer or director) fall in love with the scratch track and order the composer, who has virtually no time to write the score, to write something as close to the scratch track as possible without incurring a lawsuit. Still, some composers are more original than others, and this I highly value.

Last note: I largely eschew scores that are comprised of songs; that is for me an entirely different milieu, so Alan Menken and the Sherman Brothers won’t be found here.

With that preamble out of the way, here is my list of the 10 best film scores of all time:

10. "How to Train Your Dragon," by John Powell.

This score is a wondrous invention that, as I said in my earlier column should never, in this universe or any other, have lost the Oscar to "The Social Network." I wanted to have at least one score from an animated film, and for me, this is the one, because Powell, who also did the kick-ass scores for the "Bourne" movies, is allowed to indulge his flair for orchestration and motivic variation here. The film itself is reasonably good, but Powell’s score raises it to a much higher level. Just one cue will suffice to show how good this score is; in the scene where Hiccup first flies with the dragon, the music starts with the main major key theme as Hiccup takes off, but as he loses his grip and the dragon plummets, the music dissolves into a fiery cauldron of dissonance which then regains its balance and modulates upward to E major as Hiccup and the dragon right themselves and soar into space. There’s much more that Powell does that is wonderful, but that’s a topic for a column by itself. Wholly original, energizing, and beautiful, this is for me the best score ever for an animated film.

9. "Wuthering Heights," by Alfred Newman and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

I’m cheating here, but for some reason I think of these films together because they were written within a year of each other. (I know, I know there’s another film from 1939 on the list but that’s my call.) The funny thing is that I usually eschew scores that are famous for one theme (pick a Henry Mancini score) but "Wuthering Heights" is my exception. Most of the score is good, not unbelievably good, but the theme! That theme is so romantic it drips with yearning and passion, and the leap in the melody is so real, not forced, that it just cries out with the anguish and longing of Heathcliff and Catherine. It revivifies my belief that writing a truly memorable melody is a gift from God. And "Robin Hood" is the greatest swashbuckling music I know of. It is the model for all adventure film scores ever since.

8. "Back to the Future," by Alan Silvestri 

Yes, it has songs, but I’m conveniently ignoring that, because this score just pulsates with energy, and it’s cut to the bone. What I mean by that is that unlike older films, scores in the era after 1950 were not generally expected to be wall-to-wall, and it became an art to write a cue that didn’t have the luxury of dovetailing with the following cue but had to get in and out without arousing the awareness of the audience that the orchestra just took a break.

The signature scene, of course, is the scene where Marty has to return to the present, Doc Brown is waiting for him to show up, and the various stops and starts in the action (Doc discovering Marty’s note, the DeLorean dying just as Marty’s ready to start, Doc yanking the cord so it comes apart) require music that keeps ratcheting up the tension without making it seem monotonous.

Now, a composer like Richard Wagner would have probably have contrived a series of simple sequences that kept modulating upward (that’s why he’s Wagner, not Brahms) but Silvestri masterfully handles the situation by jumping from an augmented version of the theme (each note is held longer) over a snare drum rhythm, until Doc finds the written note. The tympani take over for a moment, then back to the theme which is broken when the lightning rod breaks, whereupon all hell breaks loose, as the strings and piano start a jagged series of intervals punctuated by the brass, I mean, c’mon it gets more and more intense, then – oh, what the hell, you’ve gotta watch it again. It’s my favorite action-scene score ever.

7. "The Fugitive," by James Newton Howard

This score is so driving that it’s inextricably woven with the action. The music never misses a beat in its relentless move toward the climax. Two scenes immediately leap to mind: the helicopter chase, where Newton Howard combines Bartokian strings sliding through suspensions a la Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta with low brass punching through, and the riveting chase in the stairwell, where he beautifully writes the piano leaping about doubled by the violins while a counter-rhythm is played in the percussion. It’s a score that absolutely matches the frenetic drive of Kimble to find the killer.

6. "Superman," by John Williams

Wiliams is famous for taking others’ music and making it his own; the most famous case is in "Star Wars," of course, where George Lucas must have fallen in love with Holst’s The Planets and the Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok and hankered for a rewrite, but there are other instances. For example, "Schindler's List" is a tremendous score, but one of the main themes bears a striking resemblance to the Yiddish tune Oyfn Pripetshik, and it’s not a stretch to believe that Williams did some thorough research of Yiddish music before he tackled the project. "Close Encounters" owes something to Krystof Penderecki, but Superman is really Williams at his bombastic best. The theme comes reasonably close to rivaling the opening of Also Sprach Zarathustra for its power, the music for the scenes in the Midwest where Superman grew up is redolent with American flavor, and the love theme when Superman and Lois go flying has few, if any competitors in film scoring for its feeling of exaltation. It’s an exhilarating score that manages to strike exactly the right note between something that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is also powerfully moving.

5. "Gone With the Wind," by Max Steiner

There is probably very little to say about this score that hasn’t been said already. Tara’s theme is iconic, Rhett’s theme is, as is the theme of the fourth movement of Brahms’s First Symphony, a straightforward plainly masculine square rhythm that underlines Rhett’s dominance, the theme for Ashley and Melanie is saturated with chromatic harmonies in the Wagnerian style that foreshadow their bitter end, and the overwhelming sweep of the music is legendary. And the music is virtually non-stop for over three hours. It’s not just a gigantic score; its use of the leitmotif has never been equaled by any film, and enables the sprawling story to cohere from the underpinnings of the music. Wagner thought he could do that, too, but in this reviewer’s opinion Steiner went him one better because there are no boring moments in the music at all.

4. "Patton," by Jerry Goldsmith. 

When you consider film composers’ entire corpus, Goldsmith is at the top. He’s completely original, never writes more than is necessary, never calls attention to himself, in short, a director’s dream. "Patton" is absolutely fascinating. Goldsmith’s use of the echoing trumpets to flavor Patton’s belief in reincarnation, especially the use of the trumpets to mark Patton’s belief that he had been a warrior before, is a stroke of genius. The march composed for the film is a wonderful combination of old-fashioned Yankee Doodle pride (notice the flute leading the way) and flowers into the modern-styled orchestration of the triumphant French horns as the masters of all they survey. Lastly, Goldsmith weaves in a doxology as a tribute to Patton’s deep Roman Catholicism. The synthesis of the three elements complete the picture of Patton in a way that no other biographical film music ever did of anyone.

3. "The Planet of the Apes," by Jerry Goldsmith

Okay, you’ve got to be kidding me. This whole score is a twelve-tone score. For those who don’t know what that means, it means that before you play a note a second time you have to play every other note of the 12 different keys before that, which renders the music free of any tonal implications. This was a 20th century conceit popularized by composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Ernst Krenek that was designed to break from what they regarded as the tyranny of tonality. It’s a nice idea theoretically, but most twelve-tone music is quite difficult to warm up to. But Goldsmith somehow makes it work, and the very fact of its aural remoteness from the listener makes the score sound truly futuristic, not through the cheesy use of synthesizers but through a complete breakdown in musical order, which reflects the theme of the film. The piano part alone makes it worth hearing. It’s probably the greatest film score ever written that didn’t get its just due.

2. Now this is where it gets difficult, because there are two scores which rank at the top of the list for me, and either one could be at the top. It comes down to one issue; one score just barely uses music that is derivative, and the other has none. This is the only case I’d make an exception for where I deliberately choose to look past the derivative quote in a film because the score is just too perfect, and I have to put it at the top. Thus my number 2 is ---

"East of Eden," by Leonard Rosenman

If there is a more beautiful, moving theme in the history of movies (yes, I know I’ll get hundreds of angry readers who have their own favorite) I’d like to hear it. What is truly astonishing about this score is that it was Rosenman’s first, and to tell the truth, he never surpassed it. How could he? The music for the scene on the Ferris wheel where James Dean and Julie Harris fumblingly try to avoid their realization that they love each other is one of the two most delicately haunting scored scenes in film history (don’t worry, the other is in my number 1 film coming up.) As they kiss and that exquisite theme surfaces, it’s one of the most tender scenes ever filmed. And the last scene is justifiably historic; the theme in all its nobility swells and I dare anyone not to be incredibly moved as we finally hear the theme in its full-flowered form. What makes this film score so incredibly great is not only its rightness but its absolute originality; there’s not one derivative note in the whole damn thing. It’s intimidating and gorgeous and wholly Rosenman’s and a gift.

1, "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Elmer Bernstein

To any connoisseur of film scores, this is no surprise at all; this score is often rated exactly where I put it. The ability of Bernstein to capture the essence of a small-town, a child’s world, the playfulness, the terror when Ewell strikes; it’s all handled with such perfection that it shouldn’t have been an issue rating this number one. The small quibble I have is Bernstein quoting Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending almost verbatim for five seconds here and there, but it is outweighed by other things, two of which spring to mind.

The scene where Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) makes his first appearance after the attempted murder of Jem and Scout is, simply put, the finest-scored scene in film history. The use of the small group of instruments, with the solo violin hovering over the French horn and harp just the way Boo’s presence hovers tenderly over the children, brings tears to my eyes every time I see it, and I’ve probably seen it more than 50 times.

There’s another wonderful touch, too, in the opening credits, which my daughter pointed out to me recently. The music starts with the almost toy-like theme of the piano, orchestrated with just a few instruments, as we see a child’s toys being played with, and then a white marble rolls away as the camera follows it as it rolls gently into a black marble. At that moment the music swells to a fuller orchestra, and then, at the end of the credits, the music is reduced to an intimate size again. This parallels the story, which starts as a child’s story about Boo and her small world, then segues into the much larger issue of racism (exemplified by the white and black marbles), then ends by being the intimate story of Scout, Jem and Boo at the end. It’s a remarkable demonstration of what the art of film scoring is all about.

In any study of writing music for film, this film could teach composers the essence of the beauty, power and importance of their art. This score is as much art as anything written anywhere, any time.

I’m sure there are a hundred different lists people will put forward. I’m excited about the discussion, because I love film scores so much, and I’m looking forward to hearing from people who are as passionate about it as I am. Go for it!


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